At a 40th-birthday party in July for Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, the magazine’s young owner, Chris Hughes, got all choked up as he pledged to the roomful of writers at Foer’s country home in Pennsylvania that the two would be “intellectual partners for decades.”
But the moist-eyed Hughes would, in the coming months, prove himself to be neither an intellectual nor a partner but a dilettante and a fraud.
When he bought the magazine in 2012 at the age of 28, the Facebook co-founder pledged to “double down” on “in-depth, rigorous reporting,” telling NPR that “the demand for long-form, quality journalism is strong in our country.”
But after just two years, Hughes decided that saving long-form journalism was just too hard. He declared that the 100-year-old journal of opinion would become a technology company, and he brought in a new CEO who literally proposed that writers team up with engineers to make “widgets” for TNR’s website.
Hughes ousted his intellectual partner Foer without even the courtesy of telling him; Foer found out when his replacement, a man who previously had been fired as editor of the gossip website Gawker, began announcing himself as the new editor and offering people jobs. Most of the staff quit in protest, and the Hughes management team suspended publication until February. They needn’t bother resuming. The New Republic is dead; Chris Hughes killed it.
This is personal for me. I left The Wall Street Journal to join TNR in the 1990s, taking a 50 percent pay cut and a 95 percent reduction in subscribers for the pleasure of joining what felt like a family. I met Hughes earlier this year, and I, too, was fooled by his talk about the resources he was pumping into the magazine. I told him in an email that he was “doing the Lord’s work in rescuing this proud old brand” and called him a “21st-century Walter Lippmann.”
But Hughes is no Lippmann; he’s a man who accidentally became rich — to the tune of some $700 million — because he had the luck of being Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard.
He began with a flourish, rehiring Foer, a well-liked former editor, for the top job. He spent lavishly, opening and staffing a New York office and moving the Washington office to glitzy new quarters with big windows overlooking the National Portrait Gallery.
And Foer got good results for Hughes: a succession of high-impact stories and online readership that was on course to double to 6 million this year from 3 million in 2013.
But after Hughes took over in 2012, he fired the magazine’s business staff, hiring instead a Harvard friend with no media experience. He had no interest in the work needed to woo advertisers. He redesigned the website himself; it looked good but didn’t work well. And his spending spree caused annual losses to swell from $1 million when he bought the struggling magazine (he was its fifth owner in a decade) to $5 million.
In a Hughes op-ed published by the Post on the night of Dec. 7, after the staff walkout and withdrawal of articles by outside contributors forced him to suspend publication, Hughes said that The New Republic should “become a sustainable business and not position ourselves to rely on the largesse of an unpredictable few.”
An unpredictable few? The magazine relied on an unpredictable one — him — and he failed it.
Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist.